ESPNs Matthew Berry Shared His Best Advice to Dominate Your 2021 Fantasy Draft

If you were holding a draft for fantasy football experts, ESPN’s Matthew Berry would make a strong argument for being at the top of the board. As the network’s Senior Fantasy Sports Analyst—aka, the Talented Mr. Roto in a previous life—Berry has successfully parlayed his enthusiasm for scrutinizing NFL stat lines into a full-time job as America’s foremost fantasy football authority. (And also, we assume, the guy most likely to get cornered for advice in any sports bar.)

In his popular weekly Love/Hate column, Berry now harnesses those insights to predict which players stand the biggest chance of a boom or a bust weekend—or season, as it were. (Spoiler: You might want to knock Saquon Barkley down a few spots in your draft.)

As millions of people begin to firm up their fantasy football draft plans heading into next season, we caught up with Berry to ask him 12 questions about how you should be strategizing, whether you’re a total beginner or a seasoned pro.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Let’s get this one out of the way first: If you drew the number one overall pick in your draft, assuming it’s a relatively standard PPR league, who are you taking?

Christian McCaffrey. I don’t think there’s a close second. Just the incredible amount of volume and talent he has—obviously, it was a tough season for him last year health-wise. Prior to last year, though, Christian McCaffrey had never missed a game. Not college, not high school, not the pros. Prior to last year, he hadn’t even missed a practice due to injury in the pros. So I think he just got unlucky. Stat-wise, the usage is just insane: He has 28 different games of 20 or more fantasy points since 2018. That’s the most of any non-quarterback, and that’s with the fact that he missed almost all of last year.

What’s the best piece of advice you have for someone who is relatively new or inexperienced at fantasy football?

I have a few thoughts on this: First off, obviously, just read my draft day manifesto.

But in all seriousness, I hear that question a lot. Let’s say you were a Martian from outer space and you came down and suddenly you were in a fantasy draft. My advice would be: Print out a set of rankings from a reputable source—like mine or my colleagues. If you simply picked the highest available player when it’s your turn, you might not win, but you also probably wouldn’t finish last. You would not embarrass yourself.

There’s not necessarily anything fun about that, though—the fun part is researching players and drafting “your guys.” I say that just to ease the fears of anyone who is like, “I dont wanna look dumb.” There’s a very easy solution. If you just do that, you won’t be the “dumb” person in your league—assuming, of course, that it’s an up-to-date ranking.

What’s the most common mistake most beginners, or just casual players make in their fantasy drafts?

Overrating big-name players. Just because somebody is a big star in the NFL doesn’t mean they’re a great fantasy player. There’s a difference. For example, Tom Brady is obviously the most famous player in the NFL and he’s a good fantasy player, but he’s my QB8 this year and Aaron Rodgers is my QB7. There are other quarterbacks who are not as well known as them that I like higher.

For beginners, I would also say it’s important to get a bell-cow running back at the top of your draft. Last year, there were only nine running backs who had 250 or more touches. It’s really important to get a star running back at the top of your draft, especially since the wide receiver position is really, really deep.

How much emphasis should someone place on drafting for their QB position? And what’s your advice for finding value?

People always say you can wait on QB because it’s super deep, but there’s becoming more of a difference between the elite players and the simply good ones.

Having a good quarterback is enough, but you may need to have a great quarterback to win, and those are the ones who give you fantasy points from their arms and their legs. Last year, out of the top 10 fantasy quarterbacks, eight of them had at least 200 yards rushing. That’s why I have guys like Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, Kyler Murray, Lamar Jackson, and Dak Prescott ranked so highly.

Think about someone like Jalen Hurts, who last year completed under 52 percent of his passes, still for the four games in which he was a fantasy starter was the 9th best QB in fantasy over those four weeks because he added so much value with his legs. Justin Herbert had 230 rushing yards and 5 rushing touchdowns. Russell Wilson had over 500 yards rushing. It’s important to have a running QB.

That said, people do tend to overvalue quarterbacks. If you only start one quarterback in your league, then it’s a deeper position to draft from. So you need to understand positional depth in your fantasy league. In the real NFL, there’s nothing more important than a quarterback, but that’s not true in fantasy because there are lots of great options in a standard 10 or 12 team league. The NFL has 32 starting quarterbacks. Chances are, you’ll get a good one.

My last piece for a beginner is that I think you want to be one of the first or the last people in your league to draft a tight end. There’s a really elite tier—Kelce, Waller, Kittle—and then there’s a drop-off. I like Hockenson this year, I like Logan Thomas. But in essence, the difference after that elite tier in expected points is fairly negligible. You’re better off waiting a bit on tight end and grabbing a sleeper or two at the position.

Is there any good reason—especially for a novice—to just flip on auto-draft after a few picks and leave things to the algorithms?

Here’s what I would say: It’s just not fun. Fantasy football is a hobby and you’re doing it for fun. The only way you’ll get better is by learning. Go through the draft. Make some mistakes. Is there value to going out and buying a fish instead of catching it yourself? Yeah, sure. But the point of fishing is to fish.

Which player are you already seeing people take too early?

Saquon Barkley. He’s a a star running back who gets a lot of work, so I think there are people who will draft him based on what I’ve said earlier, which is that it’s important to get a star running back early.

The concerns here are that he still hasn’t really started practicing, but he’s currently going in the top 5 overall on ESPN. Here’s another mistake many people make: You can’t win your league in the first round, but you can lose it. Most guys in the first round are really good. Everyone should wind up with a really good player after their first round pick. So you’re not going to have a really big advantage over your league mates after the first round.

What I mean when I say you can lose it is that if you draft someone who doesn’t produce big numbers, it puts you at a significant disadvantage. A lot of your points—almost 30 percent—will come from your first two picks. So that’s where you want to be rock solid and safe. You want more of a higher floor than a higher ceiling. My concern with Barkley is that coming off a serious knee injury. Is there a chance he misses some games? Is there a chance they don’t give them as heavy a workload because they’re concerned about him just coming off the injury? There are also concerns about the offensive line.

I think people also conveniently forget that, prior to his injury last year, Saquon Barkley had 34 yards on 19 carries. He was not being productive last year prior to going down, and I think the offensive line was a big part of that. Even if he comes back and he’s healthy and he’s running, does he have the explosiveness? A big part of Saquon Barkley’s fantasy value comes from those big, explosive plays. In games where Saquon Barkley does not have a 25-yard or longer carry, he averages 3.3 yards per carry. That means he needs volume and passing game usage, although there are certainly a lot more weapons for the Giants than there were previously.

If you pay Kenny Golladay 72 million dollars, you probably should throw it to him—of course, he’s banged up as well. So I think there are a lot of little red flags. He’s still a great player. I have him at RB9, which is at the top of the second round. In ESPN leagues, he’s one of the top 5 players overall. So that’s the guy I think is being drafted too early.

Who are a couple of your favorite dark horses and sleeper picks at running back?

I like AJ Dillon of the Packers, and I like the guy AJ Dillon is replacing—Jamaal Williams in Detroit. Those are two later-round running backs that I like quite a bit. AJ is currently drafted as running back 35, and Jamaal Williams is running back 40. I also like James Conner at 37 and Trey Sermon, running back 39. All of these guys are going 13th round or later.

AJ Dillon is on a good offense, and Jamaal Williams is on a bad offense, but one that will be throwing a lot and he’s a good pass-catcher. AJ Dillon is going to get the Jamaal Williams role, which is double-digit touches on one of the best offenses in the NFL, and Jamaal Williams got paid nice money in the offseason to come to Detroit. He’s a good player. They both have upside in their current roles. But if anything were to happen to the running backs ahead of them—Aaron Jones in Green Bay or D’Andre Swift in Detroit for Jamaal Williams, those guys would immediately become top-ten players.

I always say it’s not just enough to draft good fantasy players; it’s knowing when to start them. Fantasy football is a weekly game. Knowing when to start those guys is crucial. If there’s a game that Aaron Jones is going to miss or D’Andre Swift is going to miss, you know definitely to start those guys then. Both are good pass catchers, and Dillon should have a lot of touchdown equity.

In the case of James Conner, he’s in a full blown committee with Chase Edmonds. But the thing about Conner is he’s replacing Kenyon Drake. He is likely the goal-line back and could get about half the workload on one of the league’s better offenses, and he’s going in the 14th round.

Which player’s stock do you think has fallen the most since last season?

I was going to say Kenny Golladay, but I don’t want to keep picking on the Giants, so I’ll say Will Fuller. Will Fuller was a top 8 fantasy wide receiver. He was getting a massive target share on a pass-happy offense in Houston with a very good quarterback in Deshaun Watson. Now he goes to Miami where there’s a lot more competition for targets. You have a quarterback in Tua Tagovailoa who the jury is still out on, candidly. I think Tua’s going to be good, but do we think in year two that he’s going to be peak Deshaun Watson good? I don’t. Last year, Tua struggled to throw it deep. Maybe that changes because of some of the additions they’ve made to the offense: It’s his second year. He’s more comfortable and healthier. I still think there’s probably a downgrade in quarterback, and a downgrade in opportunity since Fuller is competing with a lot more people.

There’s also a downgrade in the offensive scheme from a fantasy perspective because the Dolphins have a pretty good defense. They’re going to be a pretty good team this year. They’re not going to be in these crazy shootouts the way Houston was last year where they’re constantly trailing and just having to throw all over the place. So I think there’s less passing volume for the team this year. I think Will Fuller’s a really good player. It was a nice signing for the Dolphins, but fantasy-wise I think he took the biggest hit from being a top ten fantasy wide receiver.

Which players have changed your mind the most—for better or worse—from what you’ve seen in preseason alone?

I think seeing the massive target share that Corey Davis is getting with the Jets means he needs to rise up in the rankings. People probably think oh, rookie quarterback, the Jets aren’t very good, but Corey Davis is really good. He is going to get a lot of targets this year and be a usable fantasy wide receiver even though he’s on the Jets with a rookie quarterback.

Rondale Moore of the Cardinals and Terrace Marshall Jr. of the Panthers—two rookies who’ve certainly made a splash in the preseason. On the negative side, as much as we all love J.K. Dobbins, I think Gus Edwards is gonna be a thing. He’s going to have a nice role with the Ravens. I don’t know that J.K. can return the value in terms of where he’s drafted based on how much usage Gus Edwards is going to get.

How should the way teams and players are approaching Covid factor into your fantasy draft strategy, if at all? Or is it just a complete wildcard for everyone?

From a global standpoint, there’s just way too much unknown about Covid-19 and about the Delta variant. You certainly hope everyone is vaccinated and safe. We know that some won’t be, but the NFL players that aren’t vaccinated—and in many cases we won’t know—it’s hard to know if that will that cause them to miss any games. It’s such a wildcard and an unknown that I think it’s hard to make any definitive statements about how you should approach a fantasy draft given that.

What fantasy leagues should do is have a plan in place: What happens if game is postponed? On ESPN, if you choose to have IR spots in your league setup, a player on the Covid-19 list is eligible for the IR spot. It’s important for everyone in your league to know what happens, but everyone needs to understand that we are in unprecedented times both in the world and in fantasy football. And we need to be flexible and adjust and remember this is a game we play for fun. It’s a hobby among friends and family and coworkers and should be treated as such.

Are there any handcuffs or backups you’re targeting because you expect they’ll be starting by mid-season, whether due to injury or simply outplaying someone?

I don’t know that I ever want to predict an injury, but there are backups I’m targeting because I think they’re good players and they’re on good offenses. If for whatever reason they were given a larger role, I think these guys would be successful—and that’s guys like Tony Pollard in Dallas, Alexander Mattison in Minnesota, and Latavius Murray in New Orleans. I already mentioned AJ Dillon as someone that I like quite a bit. I think Devontae Booker is interesting if Saquon Barkley misses a few games early in the season.

What’s your hottest fantasy football take going into 2021? What’s the hill you’ll die on?

The Washington Football team is going to have a really, really good offense this year.

There are going to be a lot of fantasy superstars on that team from Antonio Gibson to Terry McLaurin to Logan Thomas to Ryan Fitzpatrick, who I think will be a viable fantasy quarterback this year.

Most people know that I am a die-hard Washington fan. I have been my entire life, and they hear me say stuff like that and they accuse me of being a homer, which is fair, because I am a homer. But I also think, objectively, this team is going to return fantasy value in a significant way.

The other hot take I would say I have is that in Cincinnati, this is the order the wide receivers are being drafted: Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, and four rounds later, Tyler Boyd. Based on both talent and cost—meaning like, what round you need to draft them in—I think Tyler Boyd is the Bengals wide receiver you want the most.

Ja’Marr Chase gets all the headlines and I think Tee Higgins is amazing and was awesome last year. But very quietly last season in the 10 games in which he played with Joe Burrow, Tyler Boyd was a top 15 fantasy wide receiver. He’s a really good player and everyone’s just sort of forgotten about him because of Ja’Marr Chase.

Based on cost, I rank the Bengals wide receivers Tyler Boyd, Tee Higgins, and Ja’Marr Chase. And that’s the complete opposite of how most ESPN drafters have it.

Finally, besides yourself, who are some of the best people to follow throughout the season for fantasy football insight? Where else do you look for leads?

I’m biased here, but I’m one of the founders of the Fantasy Life App. It’s a completely free app that provides breaking news alerts, advice, and analysis. It’s an amazing resource. We have really talented analysts and writers. Our problem is that we can’t get anyone to tell anyone about it because they’re like, ‘I love it, but I don’t want my league to find out about it’.

Along with that is the Fantasy Life newsletter. Peter Overzet writes that every day and it’s 100 percent free. It contains everything you need to know—smart tweets from smaller accounts, links to must-read articles, and more. It’s a great resource.

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